Multiculturalism in Social Work Ethics

By Walker, Robert; Staton, Michele | Journal of Social Work Education, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Multiculturalism in Social Work Ethics


Walker, Robert, Staton, Michele, Journal of Social Work Education


SOCIAL WORK EDUCATION CURRICULA provide course work in multiculturalism, and in other related fields, multiculturalism was one of the fastest growing new college course offerings from 1991 to 1995 (Hollis & Wantz, 1990, 1994; Ponterotto, Casas, Suzuki, & Alexander, 1995). Furthermore, from 1970 to 1991, 9.6% of the articles in four major social work journals were related to cultural diversity issues (Tully & Greene, 1995). The appearance of this literature contrasts with the 1990 Code of Ethics (NASW, 1990) wherein neither the term cultural diversity nor multiculturalism was present (NASW, 1990). Rather, it contained three statements about social worker responsibilities that approximate the issues of multiculturalism:

   I.C.2. The social worker should act to prevent practices that are inhumane
   or discriminatory against any person or group of persons.

   II.F.3. The social worker should not practice, condone, facilitate or
   collaborate with any form of discrimination on the basis of race, color,
   sex, sexual orientation, age, religion, national origin, marital status,
   political belief, mental or physical handicap, or any other preference or
   personal characteristic, condition or status.

   III.G.3. The social worker should not engage in any action that violates or
   diminishes the civil or legal rights of clients. (NASW, 1990)

The latest Code of Ethics of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW, 1999) currently reflects a broader trend among human services professions in applying the concept of "cultural diversity" or "multiculturalism" as a specific area of knowledge and competence (Sec. 1.05).

This article explores ramifications of the current representation of multiculturalism in social work ethics as a specific area of knowledge or clearly definable skill. While this article is critical of certain uses of the concept of multiculturalism, the goal is not to demote the importance of cultural sensitivity in social work practice. On the contrary, this article shares a concern that representing the concept as a knowledge area and simultaneously as a moral imperative undermines its fundamental importance to the profession. Conceived of as a guiding belief or value, multiculturalism can become a powerful principle that underlies all social work practice. Sensitivity to cultural diversity is a principle that should be treated like truth, honesty, and integrity in social work practice.

Ethics Theory

The 1990 NASW Code of Ethics contains three ethics statements that might be classified by ethicists as a form of rule-based ethics or "deontological" ethics, meaning that the statements contain a call for doing the right thing (Davis, 1993). This way of stating ethical principles can also include two major versions: 1) prohibiting the wrong thing and 2) prescribing the right thing. A prohibitory ethical injunction is referred to as a statement of "nonmaleficence," since it asks the person to not do the wrong thing (Beauchamp & Childress, 1994). On the other hand, the more prescribed behavior is termed "beneficent" since it promotes action that may be considered a right thing. Both of these statements are deontological because they do not focus on the outcome of the act, merely the rightness or wrongness of the act. Ethical statements that focus on the outcome or consequence of the act are called consequentialist statements (Pettit, 1993). The 1990 NASW Code of Ethics uses two nonmaleficence statements and one beneficence statement. At the consequentialist level, both sets of statements, however, point toward preventing the outcome of harm rather than promoting good.

The 1999 Code of Ethics retains a deontological style of ethical thinking, but goes beyond a prescriptive rule to include a responsibility "to understand" and to "have a knowledge base" (NASW, 1999), and thus shifts to promoting beneficence rather than merely prohibiting maleficence.

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